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There's Much to Do in One of the US' Smallest States

aware: Compact but Compelling by Susan McKee

Delaware is improbably shaped and ridiculously small, just 2,044 square miles. Only 96 miles long and averaging 39 miles wide, it is one of those East Coast states you can visit in a day. Yet, it was the setting for many of the key experiences that shaped America.

I set aside almost a week in early summer last year to explore the first state to ratify the United States Constitution, a place that was home to three signers of the Declaration of Independence, one of the first areas of conflict between European colonists and native tribes, and a region wrestled over by a half dozen groups of rival claimants over the years.

Although Henry Hudson had seen the region a year earlier, while sailing for the Dutch, he didn't pay much attention. An Englishman, Samuel Argall, encountered the area quite by accident a year later. Sir Thomas West, the first governor of the Virginia colony, had sent him to explore the Atlantic coast north of Jamestown. Blown off course in a storm, Argall found himself in a large bay that he cleverly named for his patron - better known as the third Lord de la Warr.

That nobleman returned to England without ever visiting his namesake territory, but left his moniker behind. Colonists used "Delaware" not only to denote the bay, but the river, the area and the native peoples who lived there. They didn't call themselves the Delaware until decades later. In the 17th century, they were the Lenape, usually translated as "original people".

The English had a minor role in Delaware in the beginning (although all three counties in the state now bear British place names).

The first permanent settlement was Dutch, established near what is now Lewes, in 1631 - so, that's where I started my journey.

I arrived in Delaware on a ferry from Cape May, NJ, - an especially appropriate way to enter a town settled by seafaring people. A small group under the leadership of Capt. Peter Heyes established the first community on the site, Zwaanendael ("Valley of Swans in Dutch) in 1631.

Round one of the battle went to the Lenape: all the Dutch were slaughtered and the town burned in 1632. But, new colonists took their place.

The Zwaanendael Museum. Built in 1931 in Lewes, to replicate the town hall of Hoorn in the Netherlands. (Photo by Susan McKee)

I spent a pleasant hour or so wandering the Zwaanendael Museum, built in 1931 to replicate the town hall in Hoorn, hometown of the original settlers. It depicts the region's history from its founding to the present. Lewes is a quiet place now, but in its heyday, it was a rowdy whaling town - a port of call for pirates including Captain Kidd. It was shelled by the British during the War of 1812, and a cannonball remains lodged in the wall of the colonial-era building that now houses a marine museum.

Lewes is on the coast of Sussex, the southernmost county in Delaware. It's just north of Rehoboth Beach, location of a legendary outlet mall (which I didn't visit) and an infamous seashell shop (which I did). Shopping, always a popular pastime for tourists, is especially fashionable in Delaware because there is no sales tax.

Sea Shell City, however, is one-of-a-kind private museum. Downstairs is the usual selection of tourist tschotkes. Upstairs is the Discover Sea Shipwreck Museum, which lures 90,000 visitors a year to see its 6,500 artifacts (only 10% of the total collection). Where else could you find a 10-1/2 foot-long gold chain from a Caribbean shipwreck alongside silverware from the Titanic?

Dover, the state capital, is in the middle of Kent County. Here, on Dec. 7, 1787, Delaware was the first of the 13 original states to ratify the new Constitution of the United States earning its nickname, "The First State".

This capital city is so small you can easily find a place to park at a meter on downtown streets. I confess that I spent more time in the Johnson Victrola Museum than touring the old 1792 statehouse. (Local son, E. R. Johnson founded the Victor Talking Machine Company.) The listening room, with its unmatched collection of early vinyl, is terrific.

After Dover, I drove north to Wilmington. Originally settled by Swedes, it's the state's largest city and the anchor for New Castle County.

By this point in my journey, I wasn't as interested in the city itself as in the wealth of museums in the Brandywine Valley nearby made possible by the duPont family fortune. The industrial history of the U.S. can be summarized in the growth of this company from a small gunpowder manufacturer to global producer of complex chemical concoctions.

I started at the Hagley - where Eleuthère Irénée duPont de Nemours began producing gunpowder in 1802 - and finished at Winterthur, where all the wealth accumulated through the generations is shown to full advantage. My other stops could have been Longwood Gardens and the Nemours Mansion and Gardens - but by then I was upscale museum'd out. Instead, I crossed the border into Pennsylvania and toured the Mushroom Museum in Kennett Square.

The convoluted history of Delaware is obvious in the northern part of the state. If you look at a map, you'll see that the top is defined by an arc carved out of Pennsylvania, the west and south are straight lines marking Maryland, and the east is formed by the uneven shore of Delaware Bay.

The straight-line boundaries remind us that those famous surveyors, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, were imported from England in 1760 to determine exactly where Maryland ended and Delaware began - settling a long-standing dispute.

The top border is part of a circle with a 12-mile radius, centered on the cupola of the courthouse in New Castle - long story there involving, among others, Pennsylvania's William Penn and Maryland's Lord Baltimore. Governance of the last piece of real estate, "the wedge" where Mason & Dixon's boundary didn't quite line up with "the arc" wasn't settled until 1921.

By the way, Delaware, a slave-holding state before the Civil War that didn't join the Confederacy, lies neither north nor south of the Mason-Dixon Line - it's east.

Because I was driving to Delaware from New Jersey, I took my car on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. On weekends and during the summer, it's probably best to make a reservation at least 24 hours in advance to be sure of a parking spot on board.

There are multitudes of places to stay in Delaware, from small bed-and-breakfasts to country inns to the usual chain motels. You might want to call ahead in the summer if you have to sleep somewhere in particular, but if you're driving and a place is sold out - you can just drive to the next town.

There's only one place to eat in Delaware: anywhere that serves boiled crab. (How could you think of dining on anything else?) Pack Wet-Naps for the inevitable clean-ups.

The Johnson Victrola Museum is located at Bank Lane and New Street, Dover.

Another "must" stop in the state capital is the Delaware Made General Store, 214 South State Street, which features items made in the First State.

In New Castle, the Historical Society of Delaware gives tours at the Read House and Gardens, built in 1801 right on the Delaware River .

The Mushroom Museum in Kennett Square, alas, has closed its doors since I was there. So, while this corner of Pennsylvania is the epicenter of mushroom production for the United States, you'll just have to take my word for it.

The major museums in the Brandywine Valley are nicely signposted.

Longwood Gardens is on U.S. Route 1, across the border in Pennsylvania or 1-610-388-1000.
Nemours Mansion and Gardens with its Louis XVI-style chateau, is found at 1600 Rockland Road or 1-302-651-6912.
Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, Route 52, is the if-you-only-have-time-for-one stop -- don't miss this - or 1-800-448-3883.
The Discover Sea Shipwreck Museum is on the second floor of Sea Shell City - The address for both is 708 Ocean Highway, Fenwick City, Del.; 1-888-743-5524.
The Hagley Museum and Library is north of Wilmington via routes 52 and 141 or 1-302-658-2400
Historical Society of Delaware gives tours: or call 1-302-322-8411
For a list of stores at Rehoboth Outlets , log onto or call 1-888-SHOP333.
Cape May-Lewes Ferry - or 1-800-64-FERRY
Delaware Tourism Office or 1-800-441-8846.
Southern Delaware Tourism -
Kent County Convention & Visitors Bureau
Greater Wilmington Convention & Visitors Bureau
Lewes Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau
Chester County Convention & Visitors Bureau:

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